Thursday, May 3, 2012

An Almajirai State Of Mind

(culled from THE GUARDIAN SUNDAY, 29 APRIL 2012 )

THE decision by the Federal Government to deliver a conventional learning environment for the infamous Almajirai has met with conflicting reactions. Of 400 model Almajirai schools proposed by the FG, the first set was recently commissioned in Sokoto State on April 10,   and the likelihood of the project succeeding has been both contested and anticipated.
Many are in support of what they call a “wise” move toward curbing the illiteracy and religious radicalism latent within the Almajirai. Many more judge the schools a cosmetic approach to what is considered a breeding ground for extremists and a “waste of public funds” that should have been channelled towards improving decaying federal structures. One word that has frequently appeared is the description of the entire project as another “white elephant.”
In its own way, President Jonathan’s administration believes the schools will take the estimated 9.5 million Almajirai off the streets of Northern Nigeria and provide a conducive atmosphere for combining Qu’ranic and Western education. Facilities at the schools include language labs, hostels, clinics, staff quarters and recitation halls. Ironically, much of the criticism of these schools has emanated from the North, but there are others, who are of the view that proper communication and awareness about the benefits of the Almajirai schools will win opposing voices to the government’s camp.
While the different opinions from the ‘experts’ grace the pages of newspapers, the Almajirai have hardly had a chance to put a word in. Widely considered a ‘nuisance’ within and outside Northern Nigeria, it is no wonder that many believe placing them in a ‘normal’ learning institution is a waste not just of taxpayers’ money but possibly, a waste of everyone’s time as well. This notion might however be dismissed as biased and uninformed once these young students of the Qur’an get the chance to personally tell their stories.

Sixty-nine minutes might not have captured the entire essence of their existence, but the message of Duniya Juyi Juyi, a docu-drama about Almajirai is no less effective in voicing “the perspectives and concerns” of the boys. The film, which screened at this year’s iREP International Documentary Film Festival, is largely believable considering the main cast and crew comprise nine real-life Almajirai. The young men — Ikira Mukhtar, Buhari Murtala, Anas Ali, Sadisu Salisu, Abdullahi Yahaya Sa’ad, Auwalu Mahamud, Isma’il Abdullahi, Muhammad Naziru Usman, Kabiru Idris — were trained to act, write and direct their own stories as members of this mostly-neglected arm of society.
Aminu (Ikira Mukhtar) is one of these real-life Oliver Twists and his story along with that of other students from a Qur’anic school in Kano is the pivot for relating the becoming of an Almajirai, the upsides and the down. Meeting Aminu, we discover a respectful young boy, whose father believes it is near impossible for any child to successfully become a religious scholar if he remains under the guidance or tutelage of his parents. Like many other parents, who share a similar belief, Aminu’s father (Sani Garba SK) hands his son over to a Malam (Husaini Sule Koki) at a school in a neighbouring town. Upon his graduation, Aminu is expected to return home. Bitter encounters that jolt the unwitting Aminu fill the time between study and graduation, leaving him convinced that life as an Almajirai is not the best.
He has to struggle for a place to sleep or to have his bath plus try to overcome the taunts and bullying of an older student (Auwalu Mahamud). When the Almajirai are not studying, they produce handicrafts, clean private homes and beg for food and money depending on their ages. On Aminu’s first day out with his begging bowl, someone “kindly” gives him some rotten food warranting a complaint about people giving beggars what belongs in the dustbin. “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” moans the hungry Aminu, an important lesson in life’s generally unwritten rules.
 Aminu later succeeds in finding work as a housekeeper, but his employer (Lubabatu Madaki) will not stop raining insults on him and his parents for abandoning him to a life of begging. When she fires Aminu for being a disturbance, Aminu philosophically concludes that she cares about him “only for my labour, not as a person.” But the blame is not hers alone as Aminu also takes a shot at federal leadership for not “recognising” Almajirai as “citizens of the nation.” The parents are not excluded from the blame especially as some of Aminu’s mates appear to have been dumped for good at the Qur’anic schools, clearly flouting the Malam’s admonition that parents should pay regular visits to their offspring. Oddly enough, Aminu has only a few if mostly good words for the Malam. Many in the older public however believe the Ulamas or Malams are largely responsible for making beggars and extremists of the young boys due to their own ineptitude as religious scholars.
When all hope seems lost for Aminu however, life at the ‘camp’ takes a turn for the better and our young protagonist finds himself on a comfortable plane. But the question remains whether all Almajirai are as lucky as Aminu and what point there is, if any, in thrusting a child into such a harsh and thankless life.

Duniya Juyi Juyi, which means ‘how life goes’ is a much-needed intervention for improving the Almajirai cause. As the young men themselves point out; what they want from the public is not pity, but an opportunity to prove their intelligence. The nine Almajirai, who act in and produce this film prove this point on intelligence beyond any doubt. It is difficult to fault anything in the production besides the sometimes conscious acting and the fact that the Malam does not fulfil his threat to “shackle and cane” Aminu if he attempts to escape a second time. Aminu not only tries to escape a second time, but succeeds on his third try, yet no shackling and caning.
Apart from this though, the documentary —  a joint project of the Goethe Institut Kano and the Child Almajirai Empowerment Support Initiative — is a job well done; training and equipping the Almajirai is commendable. The trainer and Script Consultant was Nasiru Bappah Muhammad.
However to state the obvious, 9 out of 9.5 million Almajirai is infinitesimal, so maybe the Model schools can handle the deficit. Maybe. Given that there is a considerable number of ‘bad’ Almajirai for every Aminu-like boy, the film itself thus becomes a communicative tool for behavioural change, making it essential that the film be screened to other Almajirai as well as the public.
Similarly, 400 concrete spaces will not support what many consider an attempt at scoring cheap political points by President Jonathan. Asides the buildings, many ask, what kind of knowledge will be cloaked under the guise of Western and religious education? Whatever the government’s motive - especially its claims of reducing the threat to national security - there is little doubt that the Almajirai, if left unattended can bloom into the menace may already fear that they are.
For those who consider the Almajirai a disturbing bunch of useless urchins and beggars with no parents or loved ones, the message of this film is simple: “Speak good about us or keep quiet,” as one of the Almajirai declares. The choice, of course, is yours. 3 Oguntona Crescent, Gbagada Phase 1, Lagos Nigeria. P.O. Box 36 Surulere. T: +234 803 425 1963, +234 802 201 6495, +234 803 403 0646 E:

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